Albert released Famke and backed away, to look thoughtfully from her to
the sketchpad. He was not particularly bothered by coughs, having come of
age in one of Englands coal towns where everybody hacked and suffered night
sweats. He watched Famke with those
green eyes, too big for their sockets but somehow always squinting, as she
doubled over and coughed and coughed, till her face turned a bright beety
redshe could feel itand she developed an urgent need to visit the loo.
As she shuddered, Albert did nothing; but she expected no more.
Only this watching, which was his work in life, just as posing for and
waiting upon him and being watched had become hers.
When she felt the coughing was done, she tried to smile apologetically
with her swollen lips. At that, he
reached into his sleeve and drew out a handkerchief.
When Famke took it and looked down, she saw another triangle marking her
chemiseglistening, just beginning to soak into the delicate batiste, a fan of
red droplets radiating out from the vee of her legs.
It stretched nearly to the hem and her bare feet.
If she could have turned any redder, her embarrassment and shame would
have done it:The
cough had brought a mist of blood from her lungs, and it had ruined her
nymphs costume. She should get
the chemise into cold water right nowbut no, Albert had grabbed both her
hands and was leading her back to the platform.
"Thats it," he said excitedly. "That is it! Nimue was a virgin
. . . . " He pushed her hastily
back in her former pose and added the pillows from their bed, arranging them at
her feet. "Ice blocks," he
murmured, and then: "She was a
virgin, and she gave Merlin her love, and when he failed to return it, she used
his own magic to cast a fearsome spell upon him. "
He sounded to Famke like one of the priests who had visited the
orphanage; their voices were full of poetry, but she had never been able to
understand them, even in Danish.
Albert set Famkes shoulders and chin.
"And her maidens blood streaked the ice like flames. "
He looked at her pointedly, as if she could be expected to spray blood
over the pillows on command. When
that failed to happen, he continued thoughtfully, "Her blood wove a snare of
blood and ice . . . Of course I
cannot truly show that blood or where it came from, but I can suggest, in the
shadows just here, between the legs . . . "
have to tisse," Famke
bleated, but Albert stood on tiptoes to drop a little kiss at the corner of her
eye. She held the pose.
Back at the easel, he dusted off the sketchpad with his hands.
He took a long squinting look at Famke, then found half a charcoal pencil
on the floor and began to draw. There
was silence, except for the scratching of his pencil and the faint curses of the
sailors in the harbor below.
Famke liked when Albert looked at her, even though now, as he plotted her
against the stub of pencil or a longer brush, she knew he wasnt really seeing
her at all:
He was seeing his idea of this Nimue, a virginal nymph who lived in his
mind but not in his bed. It was the
same way as he saw the blood on Famkes chemise not as the sign of sickness
but as a signal of beauty, something he called a symbol, unrelated to the coughs
that plagued her.
Someone was coughing in the stairwell right now.
A sailor, Famke guessed from the loud sound of it.
She thought that the sailors who lived in Fru Strands rooming-house
liked to look at her, too; but they looked differently.
They saw the same things Albert saw, the same figure and eyes and hair,
but even at her age she knew it didnt mean
to them what it did to him. They
were only boys, at the very beginning of their years at sea, renting a room for
a week or two between voyages in much the same way as they rented girls for a
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